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Don't despair about baseball



Arkansas's baseball freefall is not something atypical for a Dave Van Horn team. Being 21-15, 4-11 at the midway point of the conference season would seem so distressing, if you bought into the belief that records mattered all that much.

For as accomplished as Van Horn has been over 14 seasons in Fayetteville, he's had his share of obstacles when the team enters league play, which is to be expected in the SEC. The sheer depth of talent in the conference is jarring, and no team ever escapes a momentary funk. It's baseball, a game that a high school pitching coach once succinctly told me "works best on an even keel."

Van Horn's Razorback teams have actually posted losing conference records five times over 13 years, and barring some kind of insane turnaround, the 2016 squad will make that 6 of 14. The thing is, all five of those "losing" teams made the NCAA Tournament anyway, and the 2009 bunch shook off a 14-15 middling conference record to thunder all the way to Omaha and end up finishing in the last four, thanks in large part to Brett Eibner's memorable last-out tying home run against Virginia.

The cause for panic at the moment is this: Van Horn's team is mired in an eight-game losing streak that seemed to come out of the great nether. An early sweep at the hands of South Carolina was quickly reversed when the Razorbacks got back to Baum Stadium to do the same to Auburn. Then they had a seemingly hapless Mizzou team coming in, and got a tough Friday night win to start that home series and get above .500 in SEC play.

Missouri charged back from its own 0-7 start, though, winning the last two of the series and then taking two more from Auburn the next week, so it's clear Mizzou may have been better than advertised. But troublingly, the Hogs were losing because the starting pitching that seemed destined to be a foundation to support a less than experienced lineup has faltered dramatically. In fact, as the Hogs go into the latter half of the conference slate, it's still a huge liability.

The last five league series, in sequence, are daunting as ever: first, a road swing to Kentucky this weekend, followed by a return home to take on Texas A&M. The annual clash with LSU at Baton Rouge looms thereafter, and then the last series at Baum Stadium against Alabama precedes the season-ending trio of games in Starkville against Mississippi State. All five opponents are ranked in one poll or another, and all five boast conference marks ranging from 8-7 to 10-5.

Needless to say, the challenge is enormous enough without all the baffling instability of Arkansas's own rotation. The Aggies are the unquestioned titan of the conference from an offensive standpoint, ranking at the top in most major categories, but they hurl it well, too. LSU is the only remaining foe with a team ERA above 4.00, and Alabama and Mississippi State both boast well-rounded clubs.

So what to do? Well, remind yourself that Arkansas was a robust 15-15 overall last season before launching into a second-half tear that included six straight series wins. Further, note that the Hogs' woeful pitching still hasn't completely taken them out of games; they've got the second-most homers in the league, some cagey veteran leaders like Michael Bernal and Clark Eagan who tasted that success and will be motivated to bring this bunch back from an apparent death, and a still-viable nucleus of pitchers that simply need something positive after weeks of hard luck and flagging command put the team in this rare position.

It's hard to project the Hogs' finishing ability but there may be something beneficial about the lulls that have occurred. Van Horn has always adjusted and tweaked his lineups and rotations to the point that even if the Hogs clearly aren't among the most talented or deepest in the field, they're always feisty and competitive and completely unwilling to just settle to the bottom of the pond. Remember the earlier statistic about all those losing SEC seasons? Remarkably, the Hogs have also never notched fewer than 13 wins in conference play, either. Consistency has been a hallmark, and it's one that even a team that dropped eight straight — some of which were pretty ugly to watch, in fact — can recapture.

Don't tune out yet, if that 4-11 start had you on the precipice. The great virtue of the viciousness of this league is that the clear-cut frontrunners could always slip, and the dregs at the midway point can always rise.

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